I have been quite busy the past few weeks as the semester winds down, but I wanted to pick up on a topic begun by Jay at mu-pàd-da and continued by Duane at Abnormal Interests. Jay was musing/freaking out about how many languages he needed to master to be a competent in the field, while Duane was reflecting on being educated in general. 

I have somehow gotten myself into a Comparative Semitics comp along with Hebrew and Akkadian comps,  which means in under a year I need to have relative mastery of Hebrew (classical, late, DSS, Rabbinic), Akkadian (three dialects), Aramaic (across the dialects including Syriac and some Neo-Aramaic), and all other languages represented in Bergsträsser (South Arabic, Classical and Modern Arabic, Ge’ez, etc). Add to this the necessary modern scholarly languages (French, German, Modern Hebrew) and it is quite an impressive/daunting list.

Now the problem is, I try to explain to people what it is exactly that I do with my life and they inevitably ask me “Wow, how many languages do you speak?” Well, one. I don’t really speak any of those languages. I mean we read texts aloud in class, and I can comprehend them aurally for the most part, but I don’t have competence in creating new sentences. I suppose I speak French OK, and I could probably get by with my Hebrew if I was in Israel, but I never have an opportunity to converse in German, much less any of the other modern or classical Semitic languages. So how many of these languages do I really “know”? 

On the plus side, according to Duane being educated requires a broad knowledge base including math through partial differential equations and statistics. Well, with my Mechanical Engineering degree I have that covered. Frankly, you don’t need to know calculus, but I wish a few more biblical scholars had a basic grasp of statistics. 


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3 Comments on “Educatedness”

  1. Duane Says:

    Glad to see you have a degree in Mechanical Engineering. My undergraduate degree is in Electrical Engineering from back in the days when we still studied vacuum tubes and transistor circuit design was an advanced elective. I did take it. I almost agree with you about calculus but not quite. To be sure, everyone who really wants to participate in the current intellectual world needs some schooled intuitions about statistics. Unschooled intuitions in this area are nearly always wrong. We don’t seem to be hardwired to be good at statistics. In addition, more and more, throughout the humanities scholars are using statistical analysis. I take this to be a good thing when well done. And what does “weighting the evidence” mean if it does not involve some kind of probabilistic thought. But there is something wonderful about the beauty of the calculus and the kind of thought processes that it entails that I think all intellectuals could profit from even if it has little or no direct application to their field of study. A Biblical scholar who has never heard a Mozart composition might still be a find Biblical scholar but most of us would think something was missing from his or her education. I feel the same way about calculus. By the way, that list of things from my post that an educated person should know came from a geeky acquaintance of mine, not me. Heck, there are days that I’m happy to be able to read the newspaper in English at 90% comprehension and I wish more people could (and did).

  2. Peter Bekins Says:


    Maybe I was too hasty. I agree it would be nice if scholars understood calculus and diff eq. I guess I was just thinking that anyone can gain an appreciation for Mozart or pick up a new language at any point in their life. However, once you are out of college it is kind of hard to go back and learn calculus. I guess that gives us a leg up on these other wannabe intellectuals. You know what else I would like to add to the list? Thermodynamics. What goes in comes out or accumulates. That’s a basic principle everyone should understand.


  3. Duane Says:


    I sure agree with you about thermodynamics. I find this particularly true in the light of the complete nonsense that one often hears about the 1st and 2nd law. You are correct that picking up calculus is more difficult than acquiring an appreciate Mozart. But I’m don’t think it more difficult than becoming very proficient in another language. It’s just that much of our learning after our formal schooling is driven by the necessities of our disciplines. The acquaintance of whom I spoke learned a lot of math, including pt diff eq. after he was thirty. He did have a year of integral calculus as an undergraduate philosophy major. I’m guessing it was an elective but it may have been required where he went. However, even in his case, his serious study of math was the result of his philosophical work on epistemology and causality. He wanted to understand how scientists actually worked and how they understood mathematics and not just philosophers’ characterizations of these things. How he taught himself advanced math is an interesting story but well beyond the scope of your post.

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